U.S. Agencies Unveil Competition to Develop Personal Pollution Sensor

In a first, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is jumping into the science prize game. EPA, together with the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the Department of Health and Human Services, today announced a nationwide competition to develop new, highly portable sensors that can measure air quality while monitoring a person's physiological response to air pollution. Four finalists in the My Air, My Health Challenge will receive $15,000 and the opportunity to present a working prototype to judges, with $100,000 going to the winner.

The Obama Administration has been a fan of prizes as a way to stimulate innovation. But My Air, My Health marks EPA's first foray into competitions. EPA Science Advisor Glenn Paulson seems sold on the concept: "You're paying for the results, not for the research," he says. "It's one of the most effective and efficient ways to get something done."

NIH has been slow to get into the prize game, as well, but NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum is also a fan of a little competition. "Grants fund the proposals that are most likely to succeed, but challenges give the prize to someone who has already achieved success," she says. An additional benefit: "These challenges lead to attracting outside investment to an area that's been a federal priority."

The first phase of the challenge requires participants to send in a written proposal that details their sensor design. Proposals are due by 5 October, and the finalists will be announced on 8 November. The four finalists will have 6 months to come up with a working prototype before a winner is chosen in 2013.